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Riparian Rights Primer

June 2, 2017

Below are terms commonly used when discussing riparian rights matters.

Riparian Rights

Those who own land that touches a natural body of water enjoy riparian rights. In Michigan, riparian rights include the right to erect docks, moor boats overnight, the right to natural accretions, and the reasonable consumptive use of water for non-commercial purposes. Though each riparian has the right to use the entire water body, such uses must not unreasonably interfere with the rights of other riparians. 

Ownership of Submerged Lands

Ownership of land on an inland lake or stream includes ownership to the center of the water body. Land below the ordinary high water mark on the great lakes is subject to the public trust.

Navigable Waters

Michigan uses the “flotation test” to determine whether waters are navigable, and therefore whether public rights attach. Certain watercourses have been declared navigable by the Michigan Supreme Court, United States Army Corp. of Engineers or by legislative enactment. Where there has been no such express declaration, courts continue to apply the commercial use or log flotation analysis. For an exhaustive discussion of navigability and public rights, with appendices listing Michigan waters that have been declared or adjudicated as either navigable or non-navigable, see the Public Rights on Michigan Waters.

Access Rights

An easement for purposes of ingress/egress or similar rights of access to a water body typically do not include the ability to erect a dock or exercise other riparian rights.

 Fishing Rights

One who gains lawful access to a public lake is entitled to fish in any portion of the lake. On a public or navigable stream a wading fisherman may enter upon the adjacent land only when necessary to avoid a hazard or impediment preventing passage within the stream.

 Hunting Rights

The right to take wild game is a private property right. Even one who gains lawful access to a public water body does not have the right to moor a boat/build a blind on submerged bottomlands privately owned.

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